Brent Sanford details journey to serve
Before arriving at the Ina Mae Rude Entrepreneur Center for the annual Frank Wenstrom Lecture, North Dakota Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford had been across the map and back in a single day.
For him, it’s all too familiar.
“Yesterday I was in Williston, talking about the Main Street Initiative and higher education governance reform,” Sanford told attendees. “Then in the middle of the night I drove to Grand Forks.”
After multiple commission meetings in Grand Forks on last Wednesday morning, he found out the state had won a unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) pilot program award, which meant flying back to Bismarck between engagements. He got back to Grand Forks to meet with Minnkota Power Cooperative that afternoon, then it was on to the Wenstrom Lecture at UND.
“Generally I’ll have a couple of talking points for something like this, but I looked at what this was and knew I didn’t need any,” Sanford said. “This is up my alley. Not only is the lecture coincidentally named for the 28th lieutenant governor (of North Dakota), but focusing on public service — that’s something near and dear to my heart.”
The lecture — put on by the College of Business & Public Administration (CoBPA) — serves to highlight contemporary issues in North Dakota politics, governance and public service. Wenstrom served as lieutenant governor under William Guy from 1957 to 1960.
Sanford used the occasion as an opportunity to tell his story of public service, one that’s interwoven in business, governance and family legacy.
Start in business
A native of Watford City, N.D., Sanford said that being a CFO in his late 20s was a great opportunity, but it didn’t feel like enough. He hails from a long line of public servants; his grandfather was mayor of Watford City for 20 years, and his father was president of the city council for eight.
After graduating with an accounting degree from UND in 1994, Sanford started his career as an auditor with Fargo-based Eide Bailly LLP. After that, he was recruited by another UND alum to be the CFO of Transwest Trucks in Brighton, Colo.
“The pastor at church had a series that summer on using your gifts,” he recalled. “I would hang my head and think, ‘I don’t know how in the world I’m going to get into this public service aspect when I’m living in a place like Denver.’ I didn’t know anyone, I didn’t know how to get involved.”
When the opportunity presented itself, in 2004, Sanford and his wife moved back to Watford City and bought the family business. His grandfather opened S&S Motors in 1946, and his father had owned it for 30 years. Sanford says he knew moving back to the then-quiet Watford City would make it possible to do the kind of work that mattered most.
“I was told I wouldn’t get another CFO job if I did it, but we did,” Sanford said. “Nothing was going on in Watford City at the time, but it felt right.”
Shift to service
Sanford was elected to the city council in 2006. From then until 2010, the Bakken shale oil boom started taking shape in Stanley, N.D., to the northeast; it eventually reached Watford City.
He knew then he had to run for mayor. He already was attending all of the statewide meetings that his mayor couldn’t attend. He had a better grasp on the finances of the budget, as well as what needed to be done to keep Watford City afloat in a prosperous, yet trying time. He won the 2010 mayoral race.
While he was told he wouldn’t get another CFO job, he more or less took on a similar role in leading Watford City. His accounting and financial savvy was crucial in an overhaul of his hometown’s public facilities. Watford City needed hundreds of millions to build a new law enforcement center, hospital, high school and an all-purpose events and recreational facility. He also led a nonprofit effort to develop affordable housing and daycare services. Sanford credits a community-wide effort of public servants for paving the way.
Sanford soon caught the attention of future North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, especially the mayor’s ability to command an audience at the state level. Sanford had just sold S&S Motors. Little did he know his life was about to shift entirely into public service.
“He came into my office and sat for two hours, asking me questions about how in the world I did it all,” Sanford said of his first meeting with Burgum. “He wanted to know how I was able to get through to the legislature as a local government.”
Sanford became a believer in Burgum’s nonpartisan spirit to reinventing government. They teamed up take the Republican primary and won the 2016 gubernatorial election with over 75 percent of the vote.
“I love this job, it’s something where it’s a blessing every day,” Sanford said. “You talk to North Dakotans about things they love about their community, their children and the future. It’s very rewarding working with Doug.
Sanford told the UND students in his Wenstrom Lecture audience to embrace a ‘dream big’ mindset.
“You can’t get there if you don’t shoot far,” Sanford said. “The governor and I are from little towns in North Dakota. You can get there. Look at what Burgum’s done with his business career, circling all the way back to public service, from being a little kid in Arthur, N.D. It can happen.”
Paul Sum, professor and chair of UND’s Political Science & Public Administration Department, enjoyed Sanford’s outlook on public service as one that can intersect with the private sector.
“It’s different, because most of the other lecturers we’ve had have been more oriented toward public service from the get-go,” Sum said. “I think it’s positive in the sense of what our College is trying to do, which is embracing the idea of interface between public and private sectors, with nonprofits somewhere in the mix.”